Echoes of the Drug Crusade Shine Through Sha’Carri Richardson’s Suspension

White House, Congress and Anti-Doping Agencies- Stop Penalizing Cannabis Consumers Like Sha'Carri Richardson!During the Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon, Sha’Carri Richardson won the 100 meter dash with a time of 10.86 seconds. That earned her a spot on the U.S. Olympic team for the upcoming Tokyo games, where she would be the favorite for gold in the 100 meter dash. But Richardson tested positive for cannabis--not during competition but from two days before. Since cannabis is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, she received a 30 day suspension from the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and was stripped of her win at the Olympic trials. Though her suspension ends two days before the Olympic games start, there won’t be another opportunity to qualify beforehand, and the coaching staff decided to leave her off the relay team.

Many have been wondering why cannabis use was enough to elicit a ban from competition at all given that it offers no obvious performance enhancing qualities. She broke no state law, only using cannabis in Oregon where it has been legal for years. The decision on which substances are banned in international sports comes at the discretion of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the organization that monitors performance-enhancing doping, and which sets the rules for USADA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). So as far as the Olympics is concerned, what matters is that WADA considers cannabis a “substance of abuse.” 

WADA publishes the World Anti Doping Code which “harmonizes regulations regarding anti-doping in sport across all sports and all countries of the world.” Individual countries are legally bound to these rules through The International Convention Against Doping in Sport under rules set by the UN organization which handles education, science, and culture: UNESCO. The rules themselves are set by WADA, so even the UN’s recent decision to reclassify cannabis from the restrictive schedule IV has no bearing since WADA and IOC are independent regulatory bodies. The Anti-Doping Code itself is updated every six years, the most recent version having been published this year.

With the recent shift in UN policy and domestic reforms across the world, Richardson’s case is a clear sign that these rules need to change again.

Richardson said she used cannabis to cope with the shock of learning during a press conference about the recent death of her mother and that she knew cannabis use may result in a penalty but was willing to take the risk. She is not alone in turning to cannabis to manage her mental health. Anxiety and depression consistently rank among the top 3 reasons people use cannabis medicinally. There was a possibility of a therapeutic-use appeal in WADA’s rules, however, Richardson has accepted the violation and made a sincere public apology, where she promised to make an appearance at future Olympic games. She reduced her penalty from 3 months to 1 month by accepting responsibility and attending drug counseling services for her use of cannabis. 

There was speculation because the suspension ended before the games began that she would be able to represent the U.S. in relay races. Even after taking this punishment and public shaming, the coaches of the U.S. Track & Field Team still chose to leave their fastest sprinter off of the relay teams. What this punishment shows is that despite the recent progress against cannabis prohibition, decades of puritainical anti-drug propaganda have left a lasting impact on the world. Make no mistake; this suspension is as much a legacy of the War on Drugs as the inflation of police budgets and the development of mass incarceration.

In order to make sure that issues like this will not keep resurfacing, and that we have No Patient Left Behind, we need federal reform now!

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